Of Lennon, religion, and (re)viewing with less obstruction

I recently subscribed to the Bryn Mawr Classical Review.  This is not a “classical music” enterprise but is rather a sort of clearinghouse for academic research and reviews of recent works about aspects of the first Classical Period (i.e., the one associated with Ancient Greece).  Big mistake, though, to sign up for this thing.  I am feeling really stupid now, plus, I feel the need to buy another book or seven.  Below are a couple titles that caught my eye.  These are available for review, but I am NOT applying for that job (!) as I am completely unqualified.

Bakker, Egbert (ed.). Authorship and Greek Song:  Authority, Authenticity, and Performance.  Studies in Archaic and Classical Greek Song, 3.  Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017. x, 295 p. $132.00. ISBN 9789004339699.

Baron, Carlin A. and Daniel Boyarin.  Imagine No Religion:  How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities.  New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. 325 p. $35.00. ISBN 9780823271207.

The first title interests me on the Greek language, general literary, and music fronts, but I’m not about to pay $132 for it.  Apparently there are two earlier volumes in this series, but the audience for this kind of thing is surely relatively small.

The second title, referring as it does to the now-famous John Lennon song, says a lot in and of itself.  I immediately resort to my melancholy inner world, thinking if only people could differentiate between realities of the biblical cultures and times on the one hand and modern constructs and human superimpositions on the other!  I’m no disciple of Lennon, but “religion” chafes me, too, and I so wish that it hadn’t gotten in the way.  People might otherwise be able to see Jesus and His way, unobstructed; and not as many people would have drifted from some essential truths they learned early in life.

Echoing the Lennon lyric, I too imagine no religion, and it’s not so easy, no matter how hard I try.  Often I think thoughts like if only. . . .  Moving toward deeper, more visible substance, I appeal to a subsequent entry from the same journal, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.02, which reviews Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.  Since one of Hurtado’s chief areas for exploration is Roman-era adherence to cults, his take on the existence and nature of “religion” in the ancient world is of great interest.

Hurtado stresses that Christianity did not fit “what ‘religion’ was for people then,” and was accordingly dismissed as a superstitio (p. 2).  It was the distinctive features of Christianity that account for its successes and not Constantine’s embrace.

– Reviewer John S. Kloppenborg

The technical Latin “superstitio” does not hide the essence above.  (It’s usually all about context.)  The terms “religion” and “religious” can be used with various shades of meaning, for different purposes.  Personally, I rarely use either term positively, but I recognize that “religious” can be somewhat positive or neutral in the hands of others.  Above, in a scholarly context, the inquiry is valid, regardless of the terminology.  We basically know what is being discussed when “religion” is the topic, whether the period in question is antiquity or the present.

Based on the reviewer’s assessment, it appears that Hurtado, when speaking of the early centuries after Jesus Christ, differentiates between “religion” on the one hand and superstitions that did not have the hallmarks of established religion on the other.  It further appears the author’s use of “religion” in this context is neutral or negative, that is, that he is asserting a distinctive place for Christianity precisely because it did not look like “religion”—and because it had uniquely compelling aspects that drew new adherents.  Hurtado himself, I might add, has taken some exception (here) to the reviewer’s characterization of his major thrusts.  I found the objection a bit overwrought, perhaps owing to how each scholar sees the single word “burden.”  Kloppenborg had commented, “The burden of the book is to discuss the reasons that the Christ cult thrived in the Empire,” and Hurtado demurred, “I state no such intention in the book.”  For my part, I suspect Kloppenborg wasn’t speaking of intent at all; a “burden” would be a theme that a book “carries,” regardless of any explicit purpose or stated intention, wouldn’t it?  At any rate, Hurtado clearly bristled a bit, but he did appreciate the tone of the review.

One of Hurtado’s motifs (note that I call these neither “burdens” nor “intents,” and I’m not even specifically referring to the one book here!) is the “bookishness” of early Christianity:  there is more evidence of writing and documentation than with other groups of the same era.  (I assume this is the case regardless of whether a group was more a “religion” or a “superstitio.”)  Kloppenborg finds that Hurtado  describes “Christ groups” as “adopting reading practices and embedding quotations of other literature in their works, making appeals to literate media recursively present.”  This is truly an important feature of Christianity . . . and, I might add, it goes to my aversion to the “Christian” (please read the adjective advisedly there) religion of Medieval times.  When believers are, by and large, neither readers nor writers, they are sorely limited in their “religion.”  It is with good reason that Medieval times were known for a long while as the Dark Ages.  Sight was limited by lack of literature and literacy.

So what is “religion,” really, and isn’t it a good thing in the Bible?  There is that verse in James that says “pure and undefiled religion is to to take care of widows and orphans,” right?  Well, yes and no.  Certainly it is true that taking care of widows and orphans is a good thing and is presented positively by James, echoing a Hebrew prophecy or two . . . but the use of the English word “religion” is a now mixed bag with a whole lot of rot in it.  Without further comment, I will close with a meaty paragraph that gets into this area.

A second methodological issue lurking in the book concerns the tendency to treat emergent Christianity as distinctive in contrast to polis religion. On this showing, Christianity was distinctive and indeed unique in its creation of a transethnic, translocal, elective “religion,” not controlled by or aligned with the interests of the propertied class. This binary, however, neglects the many instances of what might be termed elective cults that were variously related to the civic center and which in varying degrees were curious (but harmless), exotic, transgressive, or horrific. Some reverenced deities not part of the civic pantheon but, like the cult of Silvanus or Mithras, were scarcely treated as deviant.7  Others—Isis at certain periods, for example—were treated as deviant and suppressed. Participation in many such cults crossed ethnic, gender, and social class boundaries and some, Mithraism for example, imposed strict ethical requirements and produced a transformation in one’s lifestyle that was, in Roger Beck’s estimation, a “conversion.” 8  To acknowledge such a shift from cults predominantly of the polis-type to the development of elective cults in the late Hellenistic and early Imperial periods complicates Hurtado’s narrative of Christianity as the major innovation in the “religious” landscape of antiquity.

– Reviewer John S. Kloppenborg


7.   John North, “The Development of Religious Pluralism,” in The Jews Among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, ed. Judith M Lieu, et al. (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 174–93; Greg Woolf, “Isis and the Evolution of Religions,” in Power, Politics, and the Cults of Isis, ed. Laurent Bricault and Miguel J. Versluys (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014), 62–92.
8.   Roger Beck, “On Becoming a Mithraist: New Evidence for the Propagation of the Mysteries,” in Religious Rivalries in the Early Roman Empire and the Rise of Christianity, ed. Leif E. Vaage, Studies in Christianity and Judaism 18 (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfird Laurier University Press, 2006), 175–94.

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Male Marthas

I’m told that we’re still officially (who are the officials, and who officially made them official?) in the Easter Season — presumably this lasts until Pentecost, or therebouts.  This decreed season if of no concern to me.  I live in a private world of rather undesired oscillation between a) the theological reality that, ever since Jesus’ rising, the human race has been in a perpetual, eternal “Easter Season,” and resultant, ever-inspiring Kingdom call; and b) the human condition that sees me surviving and proceeding as though none of that had ever happened.

All the above is mere confessional prelude to the sharing of the following “Eastery” words, although the succeeding thoughts will similarly have nothing directly to do with Easter or resurrection.

Mary, Mary, don’t you worry.
Jesus is not dead.
He’s opened wide the gates of heaven just as He said.
Mary, Mary, don’t you worry.
You haven’t been misled.
Jesus is risen from the dead.

– as sung by GLAD – Bob Kauflin

[Although I first learned this song from GLAD, a group I came to trust and enjoy and benefit from, I choose to distance myself from the trend of paying homage to performing “artists” (who often aren’t artists at all) above the creators of the material the performers are supposedly being artistic with]

Anyway, Mary.  I know, it wasn’t the same Mary.  The one about whom those words were written was not the one who had sat at Jesus’ feet.  I just wanted to share the words above.  It was another Mary — the one from Bethany, a couple miles in the direction of the hill of the now-ancient olive trees — whose sister had attended to the serving stuff while Mary adoringly soaked up the character and teachings of her friend and Lord.

We all sort-of want to be Marys.  [That’s right:  no apostrophe there.  It’s a plural, not a possessive.]  But more of us are Marthas, I figure.  And it’s not always the women in the kitchen who qualify for the label.  I know of several graduate students who make great Marthas, for instance.  And a couple of college staff members I know are serving-Marthas-beyond-belief.

I’m struck by the memory of certain “male Marthas” in churches.  These are the guys who are always standing around attending to stuff while Bible classes and worship are going on.  They monitor the parking, they greet visitors and hold doors for people and “ush.”  They ring bells to signify that Bible classes are over.  They count money and answer the phone.  They collect the attendance records from Bible classes.  They do all sorts of things, presumably because someone has to do them.  But they never seem to be involved in serving OR eating the meat, the substance.  This lack of apparent involvement in the core of what’s going on has most often kept me from much Martha-dom, whether in the church sphere or any other.  (Are college committees places for those who are “called” to be Marthas?)

If I could see the relationship of, say, an hour of paper folding to the spiritual growth of a Bible class, I would gladly fold paper for an hour.  And if I really believed “fellowship meals” had much to do with koinonia, I would scrub pots every Wednesday night after the meal.  Since I did, at the time, believe strongly in the value of adding new songs to our church’s repertoire, I spent countless hours — maybe 90% of the total time required — putting together songbook supplements.  But often, I have had to turn the other way when encountering a Martha:  it seemed to me that that person was quite likely just disinterested in the core of what was going on and was trying, shallowly and desperately, to do something to contribute, all the while drying up spiritually.  Although a part of me respected the “servant heart,” it has often seemed to me that these male Marthas were avoiding deeper involvement and/or was simply apathetic about the real reason for being there at church.”  Perhaps I’m being a little sexist here.  The female Marthas just seemed to be doing things that really mattered, I guess, whereas the male ones seemed to be avoiding what mattered, but it could be that I had different expectations of the males.

These days, if I believed I was contributing to something worthwhile by enrolling in the MMS (Male Martha Society), I’d probably do it.  Being active, even in a surface-level support mode, is better than being bored or turned off.

To round the bend and come full circle … who could ever be bored or turned off, given the theological reality of Jesus’ resurrection and glorification at the Father’s right hand?  Me, unfortunately.  I’m just that human.  And just that bored by the periphery that so often surrounds our meager efforts to be God’s people.  And just that turned off by traditional assumptions and outmoded methodologies and religious puppeteering.

There lies an aspect of living that I need to work on — finding Jesus again amid the haze of religion.  Even if I currently felt a call to, or a gift of, prayer, I rather think I should start in the scriptures.  More specifically, in the gospels, where Jesus is seen, and where people are seen heeding Him, or (mostly) not heeding Him.  The gospels are the place where I ought to find the power to do what’s in the letters (thank you once again, Jim Woodroof) and to continue what’s in the book of Acts. 

Two years ago, I attested to Woodroof’s writings — here and here — about the centrality of Jesus and the gospels, and I’ll do so again now, this time with more disappointment in my own lack of paying attention to the gospel accounts and to the Lord they attest to.

A journalist’s mixing of politics and religion

From the religion side of the politics-religion question, there is comparatively little that believers have an obligation to take time with.  (I feel a touch of regret, actually, for writing two successive blogposts that deal heavily in politics.)  Thinking from the politics side of things for a moment, though, I was happy to read this from the blogsite of Amy Sullivan, political journalist:

If a candidate brings up his faith on the campaign trail, there are two main questions journalists need to ask:  1) Would your religious beliefs have any bearing on the actions you would take in office? and 2) If so, how?

Although marginal beliefs (e.g, Mormon ones), and extremely institutionalized, apostatic doctrines (e.g., Roman Catholic ones) are of some interest since they speak, for me, to the candidate’s ability to discern, it seems that this journalist is on to something.  From a secular, political standpoint, all a voter should care about is probably summarized in the above two questions.

A further rejoinder from Sullivan to her journalistic colleagues:

Stop calling candidates “devout.” At best, the modifier “devout” is used as shorthand to distinguish between people who are  merely culturally affiliated with a religious tradition and those who are active practitioners. At worst, it’s simply used to indicate that a politician is a conservative person of faith. The judgment of whether an individual is truly devout is not one journalists are in a position to make. If what you mean is that candidate X goes to church or candidate Y does not work on the Sabbath, then say that.

Again, good stuff.  Kudos to a journalist for calling out misplaced emphasis (bias? never!) in her colleagues.